Marieke Penterman (44) is a proud mother of five, a farmer’s daughter in heart and soul and a passionate entrepreneur living and working in America. She left her life in the Netherlands for good in 2003 to start a dairy farm in Wisconsin with her husband Rolf.
The pride of the farm is the authentic and multiple award-winning Gouda from their own cheese-making facility. This is the story of ‘Marieke Gouda’.
Marieke and Rolf’s farm, with its cheese-making facility, shop and restaurant, is ideally located along Highway 29 in Thorp, Wisconsin. “We can be seen from far and wide, and because of this we have around 150,000 to 160,000 visitors each year who can visit us in the shop or restaurant, but can also take a guided tour or relax on our terrace,” says Marieke.
Cheese making in The Dairy State
During her internship in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1998, Marieke met Rolf who was travelling around with the intention of emigrating and starting a dairy farm. He succeeded, and in 2002, through a partnership with his family members, Rolf began milking on a dairy farm of originally 350 cows in Thorp, Wisconsin. The farm has grown to 900 cows today.
Marieke made the crossing in December 2003. After a while, though, she started to miss the cheese from home: “I had ambitions to start ‘something’ before I turned 30, and when I woke up at night to a cow calving I knew we had to start making gouda cheese. After all, we had tasty, quality milk ourselves!”
The idea was there, so was the basic product, but Marieke did not know how to make cheese. And so she flew back to the Netherlands, where she was allowed to observe a cheese maker with ten cows on the one hand and a large cheese factory with 200 dairy cows on the other: “On November 22, almost a year after my crossing to America, I made my first own batch of gouda cheese.”
When the partnership split up in 2013, Marieke and Rolf decided to move their activities to the current location: “We had to rebuild everything, but we took advantage of that to make sure there was enough room for educational activities.”
Today Marieke and Rolf are in charge of a 230-hectare (+/- 568 acres) farm with 400 dairy cows, producing 12,000 litres (3.170 gallons) of milk. In addition, the cheese plant produces some 227,000 kg (500,000 lb) of cheese which is sold across America in both specialty stores and supermarkets such as Alberston, HEB, Lunds, Kroger, Kowalski, Publix, Whole foods and Town & Country.
“We work with a team of more than 40 people on the farm and in the cheese plant. All aspects of cheese making, from production to refining and sales, take place on location. Every pound of cheese is produced by us, matured, cut, … It’s all Gouda!”
Whatever it takes
“I knew very early on that I didn’t just want to stand by the cheese barrel all day, I wanted to grow, and that’s the beauty of my job. Variation keeps me focused, while I am by nature very impulsive and an organized chaotic”, Marieke says about her days at the farm and cheese plant.
“My alarm goes off around 5:00-5:30. I help the kids to school, go through the day with Rolf, walk through the shop and restaurant. Then I go to production, ripening, shipping and cutting before I dive into meetings – now mainly via Zoom”, explains Marieke, who will soon be expanding. However, the road to this success and her busy days was long and hard.
“When I just think about the financing, for one, that was really tough”, she recalls. “I only had 10,000 Euros in savings myself, to which my parents added another 5000. The bank must have thought, ‘let’s just give Marieke this $75,000 loan so she has something to do’(laughs). They had little faith in the project, but because the dairy farm co-signed on the loan, I got it. Later, when the cheese inventory could be used as collateral and the cheese plant was finally independent, we cracked open a bottle of champagne!”
“It was really hard on us: physically, mentally and financially, and several times, I thought ‘that’s it, it’s over.’ I always allowed myself those little breakdowns as long as I picked myself up and got back at it afterwards. It’s okay to feel a little self-pity, but you shouldn’t get caught up in it. I saw the lesser moments as opportunities to think out of the box.”
A box Marieke and her business have “torn apart”, as she puts it. In the spring, the cheese factory will process all the milk from the farm into cheese. Marieke has every reason to be proud of her achievement: “When asked ‘what do you do’, my answer is always ‘whatever it takes’!”
This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-01. Click here to read the full article.
Text: Kim Schoukens
Pictures: Marieke Penterman